Land of Our Fathers’ Pride

illustration by chad gowey; photo by janet cheever

Benjamin Hale Cheever is the author of four novels (The Plagiarist, The Partisan, Famous After Death, The Good Nanny) and two works of non-fiction (Selling Ben Cheever, Strides), as well as the editor of The Letters of John Cheever. He lives in Pleasantville with his wife, Janet Maslin, film and literary critic for the New York Times.

“My God, the suburbs!” my father wrote. “They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory…a life of indescribable dreariness in a split-level village where the place name appeared in the New York Times only when some bored housewife blew off her head with a shotgun.” And so it was with mild embarrassment that, in 1950, the family fled a cramped apartment on 59th Street and headed upriver. It didn’t matter. We wouldn’t stay. If we needed to escape quickly, there was an Indian trail beside our Scarborough rental that led all the way to Canada. The Algonquin were long gone, their footpath morphed into Albany Post Road. This had been appropriated for gas and diesel monsters as notorious for the noise they made in passing as the Indians had been for the noise they didn’t make.

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A brick wall girded our property so that traffic could be heard, but not seen. Giddy with the sudden proximity to nature, I was sporting happily outside when the Memorial Day Parade came up the ancient right-of-way trumpets blaring, drums thumping. I flew to the door, banging to be let in. “Indians! I screamed. “Indians.” I was 3, but I have not outgrown the conviction that despite its reputation as the place to rest up before taking Manhattan, the County is both precious in its own right and also hotly contested. And history bears me out. The Dutch and English killed the Indians for this land between two waters. The English defeated the Dutch as the colonists defeated redcoats.   

My father made Westchester his own personal terroir, the setting for his most intoxicating prose. Nor was John Cheever the only one who spent a lifetime in a region supposed by many to be a rest stop. The Indians died or left, but the Hollanders clung to their farms, as did the less conspicuous of those rooting for King George. And yet the theme of transience remained. Washington Irving picked Sleepy Hollow for his final doze, only to have souvenir hunters break so many pieces from his headstone that the entire monument had to be replaced and then replaced again. IBM put its headquarters here and IBM stood for I’ve Been Moved.   

And move we must, but sometimes we move home. Many of the wild animals almost gone when I was a child are back again. Lord knows the white-tailed deer are back. There are foxes, beaver, and I saw my first bald eagle this year in the skies above Croton. This isthmus has been a gathering place for African Americans escaping Jim Crow and for Cubans escaping Castro. The County is a destination, a palimpsest—an echo chamber of both past and future.   

Perhaps it is because the Indians worshiped the land itself that their spirit clings so tenaciously to the place that was their home. Watch a hurricane scour Long Island Sound or stumble on a startling vista of the Palisades, and I can’t keep myself from thinking this is home to me, as it was home to them—this is what the Indians must have seen. 

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